Gollancz, out now
Jack Forster has returned to Station after years spent as a POW following a war between humanity (led by the Pantheon) and the Totality, free-thinking AIs. But the Station is very different now – and Jack finds himself, along with his digital puppet Hugo Fist, hunted by all sides…
A detective plot powers Al Robertson’s novel, but it’s the character of Hugo Fist and his relationship with Jack that you’ll best remember at the end of it. A combat artificial intelligence installed within Jack’s own mind, Fist can appear as a very smart small person – and a lot of the time while I was reading this, I was envisioning Herve Villechaize’s performance as Nick Nack from the Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, down to the pseudo-butler outfit. (The fact that Nick Nack is put in a cage at the end of the film, and Fist spends much of the book in a less literal cage, keeping him from interacting with the rest of the virtual world, may have had something to do with the choice.) Thanks to a quirk of bureaucracy, Fist will inherit Jack’s body – wiping out his personality as a result – in the not too distant future, and, at least initially, he’s looking forward to it.
Fist isn’t the only digital personality Robertson introduces us to in the book. When people die, they’re not gone for good: on Station, humanity has gone far beyond simply having a recording of their loved one – they can interact with them, or rather with their “fetch”. This means there are varying levels of “real” people: humans – most of whom spend their team on the weave, a highly advanced internet which augments their reality; the fetches; and then puppets like Fist. Some have self-awareness… some are more, much more, than they seem. And then there’s the Pantheon, the “gods” humanity worship, whose powers manifest in the most unlikely ways…
Robertson expertly doles out the worldbuilding information as we need it, and as Jack encounters the varying people. There are times when Jack is phenomenally slow on the uptake – seeing the good in people perhaps where the reader (and Fist!) can sense otherwise – but that makes him all the more human, and one of Robertson’s underlying themes is the shifting definition of that state. What makes Jack alive and Fist not? And who are the real puppets?
Verdict: A fast-paced cyberpunk novel with some different takes on the tropes. 8/10